Friday, January 4, 2008

Caucus Schmaucus

As expected, Barack Obama is the big story coming out of Iowa. While Hillary Clinton may be far from finished, she received two pieces of very bad news last night. First, if Iowa is any indication (and that is a bigger "if" than most pundits will admit), the former First Lady will not be able to count on the women's vote nearly as much as expected. Obama held his own with female caucus goers, and actually beat Clinton soundly among women younger than forty. Unless Hillary can generate significantly greater gender solidarity over the next few weeks, she will, very simply, find herself without a base and, therefore, in deep trouble. Second, young people, who represent a large part of Barack Obama's core constituency, turned out in record numbers for the Iowa caucuses. Again, this may or may not be the start of a trend, but if young Americans flock to the polls in New Hampshire and beyond, Clinton will likely remain a U.S. Senator for at least another four years.

With the New Hampshire primary only five days away, it will be tough for the former frontrunner to reverse Obama's momentum, particularly as she deals with all the "What's wrong with Hillary?" stories. Assuming she loses on Tuesday (not a certainty, but a strong possibility), she needs to find a place to win before the Super-Duper Tuesday primaries of February 5. She should probably choose South Carolina or Nevada, whichever looks best for her, and send Bill there for a week of 24/7's (obviously Hillary needs to go, too, but first she has to run out the string and manage damage control in New Hampshire; there's a big difference between losing by five and losing by twenty). The only good news for her is that John Edwards, off a sort-of second place finish, should hang around a bit longer and mix things up a bit, especially in his native South Carolina.

Two stories received almost no attention from the working press, either of which might give some pause to those Democrats poised to leap aboard the Obama Express. In 1988, Dick Gephardt's victory in Iowa was denigrated by pundits because the Missouri congressman came from a neighboring state. This was ludicrous, of course; Iowans do not partake of Missouri television or newspapers and Gephardt wasn't even a statewide elected official. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is a U.S. Senator from Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from one of Iowa's largest metropolitan areas, the Quad Cities. Residents of Davenport and Betterndorf share their media resources with their eastern counterparts in Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. Aside from the major university regions, some of Obama's best numbers in Iowa came out of Scott County, where news from the Land of Lincoln remains part of the daily diet of information. I'm not suggesting that Obama's victory should be considered tainted, but the Illinois-Iowa connection should at least be acknowledged.

The other story that should potentially worry Democrats is the possibility that Senator Clinton's campaign may—not will, but may—collapse completely between now and February. Indeed, Barack Obama could be the Dems' presumptive nominee as soon as five weeks from now, having cruised to victory without much of a fight. If that occurs, he will go into the general election totally unprepared for the full brunt of the Republican smear machine. He's never faced anything like it; Hillary could have blasted him, and maybe she will now, but she worries about her negatives, and so far she has backed off.

Republicans don't bother themselves about negatives. They know this election will be an uphill struggle, and they will be more than willing to drag everyone into the mud if that's what it takes. Low turnout elections favor the GOP, so look for another scorched Earth campaign from the disciples of Karl Rove, if not from the pudgy man himself. Obama's first impulse, as the candidate of hope and positivity, will be to stay out of the gutter. If he does, he will face John Kerry's dilemma: How can voters trust you to fight back against al Qaeda when you can't even stand up to the Republican Party? If you're a Democrat, you should want your nominee to be tested in the primaries so you can predict how he or she will react when the Rovian smear-merchants come to town. Now it looks at least possible that Barack Obama, like Kerry before him, will have avoided that test.

Finally, a couple words about the Republicans. Yesterday was a good day for two men who finished out of the money, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Mike Huckabee is, in all likelihood, just another of a long line of surprise performers in Iowa who lack the money, organization, and broad message to sustain a serious campaign in the Big Boy states. Caucuses bring out the most fervent voters, and Christian conservatives make up a large part of the Hawkeye GOP. Pat Robertson did well in Iowa twenty years ago. The Republican establishment, which sees Huckabee as a clear November loser, will now train all their guns on him. I hope he kept a scrapbook, because this is just about as good as it's going to get for him.

Mitt Romney's decline continues unabated. What was supposed to be a tight race turned into a rout, with the one-time frontrunner being vanquished by a man who was an also-ran as recently as November. At this point, Romney needs a win in New Hampshire just to be taken seriously past next week. Even if he gets it, however, the weakness he has shown over the past month or so will likely turn the Republican establishment against him. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. It may be time to head back to whichever state you now call home.

All of this, of course, would leave us with a McCain-Giuliani match-up from here on out, with a slight possibility of Fred "Sleepy Bear" Thompson making some noise after a surprisingly strong third place finish in Iowa. If McCain wins New Hampshire, he becomes the clear frontrunner. If not, maybe Rudy can overcome all the scandals and make a race out of it. We shall see.

Before I close, it's worth mentioning, for those of you younger than the internet, that twenty-eight years ago, the big story in Iowa was the fall of Ronald Reagan, who had been taken to the woodshed by a relative unknown named George H.W. Bush. The year was 1980, and I think you all know how that turned out. So let's not overreact to Iowa just yet.

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